Two Ancient History Books from 2014/13

Being alive today means that one usually has little spare time because the small things (like Twitter!) seep into every available crack. Being a graduate student means having less, and being at the dissertation stage means that there is a constant pressure to write–besides, having passed through the comprehensive exams scarred, but in one piece, means that one should be able to focus the reading toward that eventual product. As much as it was exhausting and is designed to traumatize students into building their personal library of previous scholarship, there is something nostalgic about the process where your primary responsibility for months on end is to read history books and think about them. I’ve been carving out time to read fiction since passing through my comprehensive exams and I am trying to clear enough time to read one or two recent history books in my field or related fields every month. While I would like to get to a point where I do one a week, alternating between my own and other fields, I am right now trying to use this minimal time to read books not directly related to my dissertation, but within the field of Greek History (loosely constructed) that are a) recently published and b) connected to my dissertation either thematically or because they fall just outside the chronological parameters of my study.

So far I have only had minimal success in holding myself to these goals, but between this and my dissertation research, I want to endorse two recent ancient history books.

1) Naoíse Mac Sweeney, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The most commonly known account for the foundation of the Ionian cities (on which I am doing my dissertation) is that of the Ionian Migration, where a group of plucky Greeks under the leadership of Athenian princes sail to what is now Turkey and steal that land from the inhabitants. One might say that this is a myth in line with Western Civilization. The problem is that each of the cities had its own foundation myth and the region had another set of foundation myths, namely the war against Melie, that bound them together. In this book, Mac Sweeney evaluates these “native” Ionian myths by way of an exploration of Ionian identity. She also makes the argument that the Ionian Migration is a comparatively late myth, sponsored as part of Athenian hegemony over the region because it justified Athenian control.

There is a fairly large historical backdrop against which Mac Sweeney writes, but I think that the stories themselves, which are the subject, are understandable without needing to know it and she brings in relevant information when discussing, for instance, the Ionian League. I particularly appreciated the way in which Mac Sweeney was able to reorient the discussion about Ionian toward appreciating the region on its own merits through these aspects of Ionian identity.

2) Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

Mairs offers a reevaluation of the archeological evidence for the Graeco-Bactrian and Graeco-Indian kingdoms of the Hellenistic Period through a post-colonial lens. These kingdoms, which are in what is now Afghanistan and the surrounding regions, have long been known about, but difficult to understand because there are only intermittent archeological digs and coins and inscriptions as evidence. No literary histories exist and it has long been assumed that the kingdoms consisted of Greeks in exile in Central Asia, with discussions of whether the inhabitants were Hellenizing natives, Greeks going native, or Greeks. In part, these ideas emerged because it was thought that Bactria was wild and untamed, even by the standards of the rest of Persia, which those same scholars often considered “barbarian.” Mairs quite reasonably argues that this is an inappropriate way to evaluate this region, and suggests both that Bactria operated as any other Persian satrapy and that hybridization and/or creolization, with the creation of a distinct Helleno-Bactrian identity, is a much more likely scenario than a stark binary between Greeks and non-Greeks.

There is a lot of archeological evidence in this book, but Mairs does a nice job of explaining trends in research and past historical debates in an approachable way. I often found myself nodding when she discussed the problems of locating identity in a region where there were official languages of inscriptions (often Greek or Aramaic), because it is probable that Ionia contained relatively large populations of people who were considered non-Greek, but who likely spoke Greek and who probably would have conducted official business–the sort of business that could be recorded on an inscription–in Greek. The problems of this sort are starker in Hellenistic Bactria, both because the site is further from a place where the majority of the inhabitants spoke some sort of Greek and because there is less in the way of surviving materials, but they are familiar nonetheless.

Hawaii 5-O and “grading shows”

The anatomy of a grading show (defined as a show to have on in the background while grading) is a funny thing. For me they fall into two broad categories. The first are old and familiar shows. The writing, the stories, and the rhythms are familiar. They take no brainpower to watch while marking bluebook exams or multiple choice tests. The second also requires minimal brainpower, but because they are a sitcom or procedural for which the rhythms are familiar, even if the specifics are not. If the show proves to be too captivating then its purpose falters because grading slows down. Usually, this means that the show has to be something I want to see, but far, far on the crummy end of the spectrum.

This current batch of grading has been me watching the reboot of Hawaii 5-O. I’m most of the way through the first season and have a few thoughts on this curious show.

  1. Hawaii 5-O is a show about a special law enforcement task force in Hawaii, led by a former Navy Seal and consisting of outsiders and outcasts. Among other things, their leader, Steve, has returned home to help uncover the cause of his father’s death.
  2. The writing on this show are pretty bad. It is aiming for fast-paced, cryptic, and yet direct. The result is that everyone seems to have inexplicable skills and knowledge, not to mention an extreme unevenness to the plot. Rob Morrow, one of the stars of Numbers, gave an interview a few months ago where he talked about the tendency of that show to be overwritten. It was insufficient for details or information to be conveyed by visual imagery or physical acting alone, but had to be said three times. Morrow mentioned frustration with this and how he used to try to create a script that was more spare and efficient and therefore elegant. Hawaii 5-O has this same problem in spades, with most of the excess dialogue also being bad dialogue.
  3. The superficial premise of the show is pretty people in paradise meets law enforcement, not unlike, for instance, Burn Notice. However, for this core concept, there is a lot of paradise and, aside from the stars, very little in the way of pretty people. The show is far more interested in shoot-outs and set-piece action scenes than in scenery.
  4. Throughout this episode, I’m trying to figure out what the core of the show is. Burn Notice has the tension between patriotism and his being blacklisted (with a dash of family dysfunction). Numbers has the good-hearted rebuilding of sibling relationships and the bringing of family together. NCIS has its goofy office hijinks. This show has aspects of all of these tensions and is desperately trying to recreate these formulas that worked (at least to some degree) in past shows, without actually pulling it off because it does some of all of those. There is a family vendetta, a blacklisted cop, another who is having a custody spat with his ex-wife with whom he would like to get back together. Then there is the extra seasoning of everyone being trigger-happy, which seems to be trying to cover for the failures elsewhere.

    This violence also manifests itself in that the main characters are all-too willing to blatantly disregard most laws, including to torture suspects. The characters sometimes allude to this in the sense that the leader of the team is not himself a cop. There is too much else going on, including that these law enforcement officers are always in a rush to get to their next act of sanctioned vigilantism, but they seem to want the core of the show to be tension of having a Seal in a cop’s job. Of course, asking those questions requires better writing and a larger cast, so Hawaii 5-O is happy to use everything as a throwaway, moving along quickly enough that maybe nobody will notice.

  5. What follows from the last point is that there is a visual representation of a militarized law enforcement that takes the stance that almost everyone else is a victim waiting to happen. Frequently, this results in stern talking-tos. At most there are token references to people outside of the main cast of the show, passing mentions of that they should not be discharging weapons in public spaces, and remorse when the “good guys” cannot save someone.

The Great British Baking Show

Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.

As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.

Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.

This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.

The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.

February Reading Recap

I have a chapter due soon and should really be working on it, but have decided to write up this post as a writing exercise anyway. I read five books, four fiction, one non-fiction last month.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, Atiq Rahimi
Rassoul is an Afghani who studied Russian literature in St. Petersburg during the Russian invasion. Now that Afghanistan is torn between rival warlords he is in Kabul and, in the opening of the novel, kills Nana Alia, who has been prostituting his betrothed, Sophia. As he kills Nana Alia, Rassoul thinks about Crime and Punishment and, through the next weeks of his life, lives out the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. Some of the individual characters in the work, including family members, friends, and a variety of Taliban members, some of whom support Rassoul, some of whom want to kill him for knowing Russian, were engaging, but the overall plot of the story was not particularly engaging. Perhaps if I had read Crime and Punishment I would have had different feelings.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Reviewed here, Inverted World is a dystopian science fiction novel from the 1970s that revolves around the questions of technology, civilization, and relativity in the perception of others. At no point did it feel like a spectacular novel, but it also moved quickly and built toward a really satisfying conclusion. The longer I think about this one, the more likely it is to appear on my list of favorite novels (albeit likely toward the end).

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

The Jaguar, the Slave, and the Poet are classmates in their final year at Leoncio Prado Military academy in Lima. They are not friends, though in their first year they banded together to help each other. The Poet manages to keep others away from him with his glib tongue and willingness to write letters. The Jaguar is a vicious leader. The Slave is viciously mocked and harassed by his classmates, unwilling and unable to defend himself. The jokes, pranks and mockery always had a sadistic edge, but tensions escalate after a copy of a test is stolen in the middle of the night and the cadets are confined to the base. Someone squeals, someone dies–and the tension is not only about resolving who did it, but why.

the Time of the Hero was a scandalous book when it was published in 1963 and Llosa does a good job of keeping the reader guessing throughout, even as the characters, unknown to each other, are bound by mutual acquaintances on the outside. The first half of the novel dragged, but it really picked up in the second half. The book it most resembled was Lord of the Flies, which was probably part of the reason that it took me so long to get into it (I hated LotF in high school). However, The Time of the Hero is more complex and sophisticated, building on how the characters got into the school in the first place and offering the academy as a microcosm of Peruvian society–in which the most honest, most morally upright characters suffer for their goodness.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

My favorite of the month, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about the contemporary state of the humanities. Jay Fitger is a creative writing professor at the fictional midwest school, Payne University. The English department is being further staffed by adjuncts, its building is under renovation with them still inside, and Fitger’s students are in all manner of straights, for which he writes them an incessant stream of recommendation letters. More than three thousand of them. Fitger’s letters are glib, impertinent, sarcastic, and marginally focused, but impeccably polite. From the tone of his letters, particularly to repeat recipients, there is a sense that Fitger is by nature a contrarian and not easy to deal with, but the letters are funny for an outsider to read and true to form about much of the circumstances of modern academia.

Going into reading this book, I feared that Schumacher would make Fitger come across as too cynical, academia too fully broken, and the presentation of his relationship with students and colleagues too much of the worst stereotypes about academics. Where she succeeds most is in making Fitger an absolutely flawed, not particularly pleasant person who wants the university to survive, wants the best for his students, and generally has his heart in the right place even when there is someone he doesn’t like.

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

Admittedly, a strange choice for a fun reading book, this is Buckley’s diatribe against the standard moderate-left consensus of the university. In it he argues that, by teaching the values of economic collectivism and religious atheism, Yale had violated its founding mission and the wishes of the alumni base. He starts with the fundamental position that free-market economics and Christianity are in all ways good things for civilization and continues into the argument that “academic freedom” should be governed by the free market. Namely, Buckley believes that there should be the liberty to research however the professor wants, but that, so long as their research is being funded by teaching students, the professors must only teach the values and ideas sanctioned by the board of trustees. So long as the professor has the option to resign, then he says mandating particular curricula does not violate academic freedom.

Buckley has some interesting and sometimes valid points scattered throughout this book, including that the idea of academic freedom blurs between liberty to teach and to research without interruption, but three points jumped out at me. First, he names graduate instructors by name and dresses them down for what they taught. The thought of this terrifies me in this new age of social media. Second, I largely disagree with Buckley on the issue of Christianity versus Atheism, but it is also interesting to note how these cultural issues vary in the sense of us against them and suspect that one could remove atheism, add islam and republish it with minimal changes so that it would appeal to people today. Third, I couldn’t help but note that Buckley doesn’t have a problem with a standard convention that will indoctrinate young people. His major problem is with what that convention is.

Noted above, I have a chapter due, so whatever I read next will have to wait. Right now I’m not sure what that will be.